Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine’s inching progress toward a Senate campaign in Virginia underscores how important the Old Dominion will be for President Obama’s reelection prospects. Kaine would be the first significant Senate recruit that Democrats have landed this cycle, and it’s no coincidence that the president and his top campaign strategists have been urging him to run.
As the party’s head, Kaine is fully aware of the crucial role his home state will play in 2012. Indeed, Virginia is emblematic of the new coalition that Obama needs to put together to win a second term.
As my colleague Ronald Brownstein has convincingly argued, Virginia represents the new heart of the Obama coalition—college-educated whites, young people, Hispanics, and African-Americans. And as the president’s support has declined among the party’s traditional base of blue-collar whites, he may need to rely more heavily on states with demographic profiles that better match his political sweet spot.
Mark Warner, now Virginia’s junior senator, famously courted rural, southwestern Virginians, showcasing his NASCAR fluency in his successful 2001 gubernatorial campaign. But wooing downstate voters is no longer necessary for Democrats. In 2006, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., needed to win only four of the state’s 11 congressional districts—three in Northern Virginia and the gerrymandered majority-African-American district around Tidewater—to oust Republican George Allen from his Senate seat. Kaine, likewise, won the 2005 governor’s race by racking up huge margins in the D.C. suburbs.
In the last decade, Virginia’s political landscape has changed dramatically. The Hispanic population grew 91 percent in the past decade; Latinos now make up about 8 percent of the population. Asian-Americans comprise about 6 percent of the state’s population, up 69 percent since 2000. That growth, combined with a huge population surge in the D.C. bedroom communities of Northern Virginia, allowed Obama to become the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to carry the state.
Traditionally, the electorally rich Rust Belt would be the starting point for any Democratic presidential candidate facing a competitive race. Ohio has backed the winning candidate in the past 12 elections. But with unemployment still painfully high, Obama faces a challenge to match his 2008 performance in the Midwest. Blue-collar white voters predominate in the region, and he has struggled to win them over.
Nationally, Obama took only 40 percent of the white non-college-educated vote, which makes up at least half of the electorate in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And while non-college-educated white voters gave Obama respectable support in 2008, they deserted the president’s party in droves two years later. In Wisconsin, Obama carried the demographic with 52 percent, but former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., got only 40 percent last year. Obama won the working-class Detroit suburb of Macomb County with 53 percent, while 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Virg Bernero got 37 percent. In Ohio, Obama received 44 percent of the non-college white vote, compared with 30 percent for last year’s Democratic Senate nominee, Lee Fisher.
In past years, that would be a major warning sign. Brookings Institution’s William Galston wrote in The New Republic last week that Obama “can’t win the election without” Ohio. But the president has another path to reelection that would allow him to mitigate possible losses in the Rust Belt.
Consider these new Democratic majority-makers: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia. If Obama carries them, he could lose Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin and still win reelection.
Even in 2010, a dismal year for Democrats, the party’s Senate nominees won hotly contested elections in these battlegrounds, thanks to higher-than-expected support from Hispanics and college-educated white voters.
The Hispanic vote made up a larger share of the Nevada electorate in the midterms (16 percent) than in the 2008 presidential election (15 percent), a sign of the unprecedented Latino growth in the Silver State. It made the difference in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s reelection. In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet won college-aged whites with 48 percent. In New Mexico, Rep. Martin Heinrich was one of the relatively few vulnerable House Democrats to win reelection; he received 52 percent of the vote in a swing Albuquerque district filled with Hispanic voters.
That brings us back to Virginia. This is the state where Democrats have choked since Obama’s decisive presidential victory, losing the governorship and three House seats (they also nearly coughed up Rep. Gerry Connolly’s Northern Virginia seat).
Democrats suffered setbacks in Virginia for numerous reasons, but most pressing to Obama was the loss of affluent white-collar voters. They cast ballots for Obama in 2008 but went for GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell one year later. Obama’s recent support for an across-the-board extension of tax cuts, disengagement from the heated labor fight in Wisconsin, and conciliatory appeals for education reform are a direct appeal to this constituency.
That’s not the same message that appeals to blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt. But if Obama hopes to win a second term, the president’s best bet may lie not with the Reagan Democrats but with the Obama independents.
This article appears in the March 16, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.